Officials considering ordinance changes to cut crime|[02/23/08]

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 23, 2008

Vicksburg bars, grocery stores and convenience stores could soon have limits that restrict when beer and wine coolers may be purchased, a move officials hope will eliminate crime related to late-night drinking, Mayor Laurence Leyens said Friday.

City Attorney Nancy Thomas is researching state laws and restrictions by other cities.

“We haven’t made decisions of what we think will work or what won’t work,” she said. “It takes a lot of research. We have to be careful because we don’t want to conflict with anything the state does.”

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But, increased crime in areas where late-night drinking occurs has led local police to make suggestions to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

“We’ve been making recommendations to make changes that we feel will enable us to do a better job at enforcing ordinances,” said Police Chief Tommy Moffett. “If we continue to do business this way, we’re going to continue to have the same negative results we’ve had.”

City police and the mayor are backing up their argument with statistics.

* The department reported 10 homicides in the city in 2007, many alcohol-related and most between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

* Seventy-five DUI arrests were recorded in 2007, 46 over weekends and 40 after 10 p.m.

* Sixteen DUI arrests involved wrecks.

* Of the weekend arrests for DUI, 38 occurred after 10 p.m.

This year, on Feb. 10 — a Friday — 39-year-old Donald Wayne Vinson, 350 Vinson Road, was shot to death at Town & Country Lounge, a club at 3350 N. Washington St., at about 11:30 p.m. The shooting, for which Vinson’s brother-in-law James Ainsworth was charged and later released on $100,000 bond, furthered officials’ worries about alcohol-related crime.

“We try to do what we can to reduce crime. We started to look back at what causes it,” said Deputy Chief Richard O’Bannon. “We looked back at homicides, DUIs and accidents and found there was a lot of correlation between the time of day and alcohol. The logical thing is to say… ‘This is the problem, so address the problem.'”

A change in a city ordinance in 2004 allowed the five businesses that were defined then as neighborhood clubs because they were in residential zones or within 300 feet of a residential zone to extend hours until 2 a.m. Under the previous ordinance, the clubs had to close at 10 on weeknights and midnight on weekends. The later closing time brought with it an increase in complaints by neighbors — and unwanted crime, O’Bannon said.

“They were all associated with alcohol in some shape, form or fashion,” he said.

In 2004, the city had owners of five neighborhood clubs sign an agreement that they would “exercise orderly conduct by not yelling, fighting, playing loud music or doing any other activity that might disturb the neighbors.” The owners also agreed to hire a licensed security guard to work after 9 p.m. and not to have liquor or controlled substances on the premises. Only one non-conforming, or pre-existing, club that agreed to the terms in 2004 still exists, Leyens said.

That club, Anderson’s Cafe on First North Street, has not complied and has become a problem spot for crime, he said.

“The clientele has changed and the nature of how it operates has changed,” he said.

Now Leyens and Moffett would like to require neighborhood clubs, or bars, such as Anderson’s, to close at 10 p.m. across the board.

“Neighborhood bars and neighborhoods can’t co-exist in harmony,” Moffett said. “You just can’t fit the two in the same glove.”

Last summer, Vicksburg passed an amendment to the city’s zoning ordinance, defining as nightclubs those businesses that derive more than 40 percent of revenue from alcohol sales. The ordinance, which also prohibits nightclubs from operating downtown, followed complaints from downtown residents and business owners about noisy and unruly behavior at The New New Orleans Cafe, where a fight on June 17 escalated into a homicide at another location. The nightclub, since shut down, was in a building on Washington Street that has been home to various nightlife hot-spots.

Along Washington Street in downtown, bars, restaurants and storefronts dot the lighted, brick street, renovated in 2001 as part of a multimillion-dollar urban renewal plan. The area is home to 25 upper-level apartments, but Moffett said those residents signed up for the sounds and sights offered in any active downtown district.

“If you choose an apartment downtown, you know you’re going to have the noise,” he said. “In a neighborhood, it’s just thrust on you.”

A change in the current ordinances also could regulate the hours bars are allowed to serve alcohol. Under current city rules, bars and clubs in Vicksburg are allowed to sell alcohol until 2 a.m. and may not re-open until after 7 a.m. the same day and after 11 a.m. on Sundays. The new ordinance, if allowed, would require all bars and clubs to end alcohol sales at midnight during the week and at 2 a.m. on weekends.

Leyens would like for the same limits to be placed on the sale of beer and light wine, or wine coolers, at grocery and convenience stores.

Currently, stores that sell alcohol are allowed to do so 24 hours, seven days a week, which poses a problem with late-night corralling in parking lots, Leyens said. Eliminating beer sales on Sundays has also been suggested, but Leyens said that would be only to follow suit with current state laws as they apply to liquor. He also said he doubted that change would happen.

Leyens would also like to end sales of single beer and wine coolers at stores, something O’Bannon said poses a slew of problems.

“If a guy gets off work and he buys a beer and puts it in a bag, one would assume he’s going to drink it on the way home,” he said. “Well, drinking and driving is against the law. Having an open container is against the law. He’s probably not going to make it home before he opens it.”

Similarly, the mayor would also like to stop brown-bagging, the act of taking liquor, beer or wine to a place of business that holds no liquor license. A customer often pays a cover and receives set-ups — usually cups, ice and soft drinks or water. Charitable organizations, such as the American Legion, likely would not be affected — if the law even allows the city to take away brown-bagging, Leyens said. That is one of the elements being researched by the legal department, Thomas said.

Another restriction Leyens would like to see would ban anyone younger than 21 from entering a business that serves alcohol.

State law allows a person 18 or older, but younger than 21, to consume alcohol with the consent or presence of a parent or guardian. By not allowing people 21 or younger to enter a bar would eliminate any question of underage drinking, Leyens said.

Untouched by changes would be casinos and bars or clubs with resort status — a special sanction on buildings in a resort area designated and approved by the State Tax Commission Alcoholic Beverage Control Division and the city allowing bars or clubs to sell alcohol all hours. Most bars and restaurants along Washington Street downtown have resort status. The state requires liquor stores to close at 10 p.m. daily and bans their opening on Sundays.

Mississippi law states that local municipalities “may enforce such proper rules and regulations for fixing zones and territories, prescribing hours of opening and of closing” and any other measure “to promote public health, morals and safety.”

At Anderson’s, the one neighborhood bar named by police as a trouble spot, Moffett said neighbors frequently complain of noise, crowds, public drinking and gunshots.

The owner, Charles Clark, said the problems related to crime are not a result of his establishment.

“Gang members know they cannot come in here,” Clark said. “If someone comes in here and his pants are hanging off his butt, I turn him right around.”